What does effective teaching look like? Reflection of an award winning special education teacher.

After teaching for 15 years, last year was very special. It was a year of recognition and reflection. Recognition came in two forms. Firstly, after a rigorous recruitment process I was selected once again to be an e-mentor in New Teacher Center’s e-Mentoring for Student Success Program (eMSS). This is my third year and it is a privilege for me to serve as a mentor. Secondly, I was short-listed for the TNTP (The New Teacher Project) Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice. The application process for both required me to reflect on what makes a teacher effective and on how, by sharing with other teachers what I’ve learned through my experience in the classroom, I can help more students learn.

I was introduced to the Fishman Prize by a good friend. The prize is designed to highlight some of the best teachers across America. It provides an opportunity for teachers to share ideas about what makes them effective in the hopes these will then be a shared with a wider audience. Before that email, I had never heard of this award that honors great teaching and after reading the requirements, I was convinced that the Prize was not me. I decided not to apply. However, my friend was very persistent, and after some prompting and encouragement, convinced me to submit an application. The process was competitive and overwhelming at times, because I had to reflect on myself and my teaching. The application required me to answer questions such as how do you know you are an effective teacher? What is the teaching skill or strategy that you do best, and which helps to distinguish you as unusually effective?

Initially this was very unfamiliar to me. It was the first time I’d had to truly reflect on the way I instruct my students and define effective instruction. This was not an easy task. These are not subjects that are discussed on a daily basis, but they are very important. Ultimately, I came to realize the value of reflection and the role it plays in teaching.

Here is how I defined the traits that make me an effective teacher. They are traits that I am sure all great teachers possess.

Firstly, I believe that every student who enters my classroom has potential. Setting appropriate high expectations for each individual student sets me apart and makes me effective. I don’t see a student with a disability; however I do recognize their abilities. My goal each day is to highlight each student’s strengths, not their weaknesses.

As a special education teacher, effectiveness cannot solely be measured by current standardized assessment tools. My students have significant cognitive deficits, and often times their performance measurements are unfair and overlooked. Therefore, I have to use informal assessments, observation, and personal dedication as my markers. Fortunately the North Carolina Extended Content Standards, our state‘s alternative testing program, offers several methods to assess the students’ academic growth. Additionally, I use anecdotal notes, progress monitoring and data collection to help determine their level of academic achievement. When my students arrive each school year, many of them have not been exposed to literacy, math, or science concepts. Their experiences have been limited to learning “life skills.” However, I strive to teach language arts, science, math, and social studies while simultaneously addressing some of those life skills they will need. According to the most recent standardized assessment results, 90% of my students scored a Level 3 or above in the areas of reading, math, and science. However, the test scores are not what make me effective. Being committed to the students I teach makes me effective. I have high expectations for each child that enters my classroom, and mediocrity is not acceptable.

Another skill that helps me be effective is the freedom to differentiate the curriculum. Differentiation is not easy, but is one of the keys to success. Students come to our classroom with a myriad of experience and skills; it is my job to determine what those skills are, and help the students to develop their highest potential. The number of students under my care is few, but the needs are many. Organization plays a necessary and pertinent role. I have to teach students the curriculum and address their Individual Education Plan (IEP) simultaneously. In order to achieve this goal, I design lesson plans according to the Common Core; and use instructional activities to address their IEP. The individual goals of each student vary and a written choice board schedule is posted at each desk. The schedule addresses core content areas, and technology, that needs to be met daily. The schedule provides the students visual cues of what needs to be completed, and provides opportunity for them to be engaged in the learning process. Students are able to assist with meeting their individual goals by completing independent work tasks if a teacher is not accessible at that time. The schedules help me to address many needs without chaos and confusion. The use of whole group, small group, and one on one instruction, are utilized to address academic and social skill needs that exist. Currently there are two different reading and math programs that are used in my school/district. Careful planning, focus, and classroom management has afforded me the opportunity to use them effectively. Being organized and able to differentiate instruction are key, to effectively help all students learn.

As I look back over this year, reflecting and articulating my style has made a difference in how I approach teaching. As a veteran teacher it is easy to get deeply involved with the daily tasks of teaching and instruction, however taking the time out to dig deep within and self-evaluate makes all the difference in the classroom.

The process of reflection has made me a better teacher, and today, as an e-MSS mentor I’m fortunate to be in a position to help beginning special education teachers become reflective, effective practitioners.

As a mentor, my role is not so much about telling them what I’ve learned or what effective teaching looks like, but facilitating a process by which they learn this for themselves too, and more quickly than they would if they were trying to do so alone.

The Fishman Prize has changed my life. It was an honor to be one of the nine finalists. I was able to meet some of the most incredible teachers that our country has to offer. The recognition that the Prize afforded me goes beyond anything that I could ever have imagined. I am truly grateful for the experience and humbled by the opportunity. As I now help new teachers along the path to becoming highly effective, my hope is that they too might one day apply to the Prize and receive the recognition that ALL great teachers deserve.

Being organized and able to differentiate instruction are key, to effectively help all students learn.


Nakita Thomas, an e-mentor in New Teacher Center’s eMentoring for Student Success (eMSS) program, has entered her  15th year of teaching. This is her 13th year working within North Carolina Public Schools. The majority of Nakita’s experience has been teaching elementary, middle and high school special education. She also has had the opportunity to teach at the preschool, and community college level early in her career. In 2012, Nakita was nominated to serve a 3 year appointment, with the Master Teacher Program for the Watson College of Education. Additionally she is a partnership teacher and has supervised several student interns affiliated with the university. Nakita currently works as a special education classroom teacher for middle grades, in Rocky Point, North Carolina.

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